UTC Reading hosted its most ambitious project day to date when 240 KS4 students in 40 teams; 50+ volunteers and 24 real estate industry experts came together for the biggest challenge of its kind.
On Thursday, March 24, students were asked to work together under an immense amount of pressure on a complex urban planning project, before pitching their ideas to a panel of leading industry experts from across the built environment.
Hosted by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the UrbanPlan workshop is a school-based initiative that challenges youngsters to think about the fundamental forces that affect urban regeneration. The workshops have taken place all over the world, but the most they have catered for in the UK thus far has been 30 students at any one time.
This time, for the first time, the workshop was opened up to all 240 Year 10 and 11 students – a mammoth feat of organisation! Around 50 volunteers helped the day to run like clockwork as the students were grouped into 40 teams across eight classrooms, working with 24 real estate industry experts who came from far and wide to volunteer their time.
The challenge was for each team to develop a blighted site in the hypothetical town of Elham. The teams had to overcome a series of design challenges – including economic, social, political and environmental issues – to build a financially viable scheme comprising commercial and residential buildings and spaces. Once designed, the students needed to work on a pitch to make sure their ideas were in with a chance of reaching the final.
Would their office blocks throw shade over the residents’ houses? Should the affordable housing be segregated from the luxury builds? Is it a good idea to build a skate park near houses?
Notes showed the students what their roles were in the project.
All taxing questions, which needed a lightening response, due to the time restrictions placed upon each team. Some incredibly quick thinking was on show from the enthusiastic students, who were assigned their roles in each team by picking out a coloured block. Each block related to a role: Finance Director; Head of Marketing & Sales; Head of Partnership & Social Impact; Head of Planning and Design; Head of Environment.
By reading the supporting documentation, the students could clearly see what their responsibilities were – for example, how much of what was planned should be sustainable? How much profit – if any – should the project make? How were the community’s needs configured into the design?
All 40 teams were all timed to the second, so they had an equal and fair amount of time. The first ten minutes went to the initial build – both physically with the use of building blocks, and on screen with a 2D and 3D view. Costs were totted up automatically as each building was placed on screen, making it somewhat easier for the finance directors to keep their heads in such tight time constraints.
Even at this early stage it was evident where many of the student’s natural skills lay – some were good at ‘working the room’ to gather ideas, others were natural team leaders, while others used their creative thinking to manipulate the brief.
Over the next ten minutes the teams were assigned a volunteer property expert to work with them to study their initial plans, question their choices and offer useful design tips.
One of the volunteers, Vicki Palmer, Corporate Social Responsibility and Early Careers Manager at real estate consultants Hollis, explained why she was happy to take part: “I’ve supported the UrbanPlan project for five years now; it’s a fantastic project. Some of the suggestions the teams come up with are both unexpected and inspiring.”
Dominic Riley, from Havard Group Cambridge, called the UrbanPlan: “An extraordinarily well-conceived idea” and like Vicki, has supported it in schools over a number of years. “I admire the school’s ambition for hosting it on such a large scale,” he said, and also noted how able he found the students to be.
Then it was switcheroo – our experts moved to a different room, to be replaced with a different set of experts, who were there to impartially judge each team’s plan and pick a winner. Students were given ten minutes to prepare their pitches, before presenting it to the experts, who then grilled them with questions such as: ‘Why did you choose to build a homeless shelter? How much employment have you generated?’
Again, different talents shone through – while some had naturally good presentation skills, others showed remarkable empathy, supporting their less confident teammates, while others showed lightening skills in thinking on their feet as questions were fired at them.
Judge Hazel Lobo, from the University College of Estate Management, offered this feedback: “I was particularly impressed with those team members who stepped in and had their friend’s backs when they were finding it difficult; that was brilliant.”
For those who struggled with nerves in presenting, she had this advice: “Don’t worry – that gets better with practice, so keep standing up there, keep talking.”
Fellow judge Shripal Shah, Head of Real Estate Finance London at Allianz Royal Estate, agreed. “To see those who stepped in – that was amazing. To sense someone is struggling and step in – that takes courage and skill.”
Andrew Raven, who leads an urban design studio in Oxford, liked the way some of the teams helped the judges visualise what it would feel like living in this fictional town: “That’s something that’s hard to get across in a design. And it’s a good thing to be thinking about – what does it feel like actually on the ground? I also thought there were some really quick answers to our off-the-cuff questions.”
After much deliberation, eight winners were selected, which were then whittled down to four. These four teams then had to fine-tune their pitches before presenting to the three main judges, Annette Simpson, Director of Development Partnerships at Legal & General and Chair of ULI UK; Francois Trausch, CEO of Allianz Real Estate; and Lisette Van Doorn, Chief Executive of ULI Europe, while their fellow students and experts watched on in the main hall.
There was much excitement in the hall as the final teams were announced.
Many congratulations to the winning team, Almustrati & Co! The judges selected them as winners for their: ‘Good preparation and teamwork, well-thought-through plans, high spread of housing throughout, decent level of additional investment, good returns and good, solid consideration.’
Congratulations too to the runners-up, Plutos Estates, as voted for by the students, who received a water bottle, hoodie and notebook.
Principal Jonathan Nicholls had this to say about the day: “I could not be prouder of how our students rose to the challenge and demonstrated all three parts of our UTC Reading culture code: Be Ready, Be Respectful and Be Relentless.
“School is not just about turning up, studying subjects and getting grades. It is these experiences, these opportunities, these moments, that motivate, inspire and demonstrates to children what they can achieve when they are given an environment in which they can thrive.
“On Thursday, our vision of Transforming Lives Through Learning was delivered in a truly brilliant way.”
Anette Simpson, chair of ULI United Kingdom, said: “This competition will inspire young people to be the leaders our towns and cities need for the future. The world is facing some big challenges – from decarbonisation and sustainability to affordable housing to AI – and we’re going to need visionary leaders to come up with creative solutions. UrbanPlan is about raising aspirations and helping young people understand the role of the built environment in reviving and regenerating urban areas. It also opens the real estate industry to an exciting, diverse generation of informed, engaged young citizens who understand the communities where they live.”
Speaking to the winning team – Almustrati & Co – after the event – it was clear the boys were in it to win it from the start.
Louie: “We came into school wanting to win. I was quite confident of our group. When it came to presenting, we had a strong plan – we did it in an orderly fashion, professionally. When it came to presenting in the hall in front of all those people, I think it went pretty well. Well, we won…”
Ahmed: “We came in looking forward to competing with each other. Our team tried to co-operate with each other as much as we could – we played to each other’s strengths to get the optimum result.”
Jakub: “I was confident we could come up with a really good project. I knew we would all work together well and that we would come somewhere near the top. But I was surprised to win! It was nerve-wracking in the hall presenting but I enjoyed it. If we did anything differently, we’d probably have a few girls in the team for diversity.”
All the boys agreed they had got a lot from the day, which gave them a new insight on careers within the property industry.
Louie: “It’s definitely opened a lot of doors in terms of learning more about the industry. I’m definitely going to go home and look online to see what the options are in terms of what I should be doing in school to prepare for working life. The subjects they offer here definitely help towards working life, that’s why I chose to come here. I’d like to go into property or civil engineering – something in building, so this project really interested me.”
Ahmed: “I had a plan for something computer based, but now that I have experience in the property field, I feel like there’s opportunity to excel in this industry.”
Jakub: “Winning or just taking part – it’s a great thing to put on your CV – it shows creativity and teamwork. It’s something that shows employers you can work in a team under pressure.”
Louis: “Thank you to ULI and the teachers for planning the day – it was really well put together and I hope that it continues to do well in other schools.”
- A huge thank you to all Industry professionals joining us from EVERFI, Urban Dashboard, Hollis, BlackRock, Savills, KKR & Co. Inc., EQUANS, aspireDM, M3C, Allianz, Stantec, Climate Business, JDA Planning Consultancy Ltd, Dar, Michael Sacher, REPA Investment Group, Assael Architecture, John Lewis, Lichfields UK, Cundall, University College of Estate Management, ULI Europe, Legal & General and Property Week.